Pennsylvania Criminal Law: An Overview

While Pennsylvania is renowned for its importance in the founding of the United States of America, it holds a dark history of organized crime spanning back to the Prohibition era. The state is home to three Italian crime families: the LaRocca family in Pittsburgh, the Philadelphia family, and the late Bufalino family of Pittston, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre.

Each of these crime families ran illegal bootlegging and racketeering syndicates throughout the state and beyond its borders. Both internal feuds and rival gang wars resulted in embattled neighborhoods and numerous casualties.

Today Pennsylvania ranks 27th in violent crime rates and ranks in the top 20 safest states to live in. This places the state in a decent mid-range for crime rates and safety in the nation. While Philadelphia is the most historically revered city in the state, it actually ranks in the top 10 most dangerous cities in the state.

Pennsylvania Felonies and Misdemeanors

Crimes in Pennsylvania are separated into different classes and degrees according to their severity. The highest criminal offense classification is murder of the first degree which can result in a penalty of either execution or life imprisonment. The lowest criminal offense classification is a summary offense which can result in a penalty of no more than 90 days of imprisonment and up to a $300 fine.

In between murder of the first degree and summary offenses are two lesser degrees of murder and three degrees each for felonies and misdemeanors. A felony is the second-highest criminal classification after murder and results in imprisonment of up to 20 years and a fine of no more than $25,000. A misdemeanor encompasses lesser crimes that are still more serious than summary offenses and results in imprisonment of up to 5 years and a fine of no more than $10,000.

Pennsylvania DUI Laws

In Pennsylvania, a driver can receive a DUI if his or her blood-alcohol content (BAC) level is 0.08 percent or higher. A driver can also receive a DUI for if he or she is impaired by prescription medication or drugs.

Pennsylvania DUI penalties can start from a $300 fine, a 6-month probation, and mandatory safety education and treatment. Penalties drastically scale upward depending on the driver's BAC level at the time of the incident and if he or she had previous DUI offenses. Pennsylvania has a Zero Tolerance law for underage drunk driving.

Capital Punishment in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania imposes the death penalty by lethal injection for murder of the first degree. However, Pennsylvania has only executed three criminals since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976.

The state's death row was once the fourth-largest in the nation for two decades. Today, it is the fifth-largest in the nation because criminals' sentences are being commuted to life sentences or are being acquitted. In 2015, Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on capital punishment due to concerns over racial bias, innocence, and how death penalties affect the families of victims.

Pennsylvania Prosecutors File Criminal Charges

Many people think that police officers decide who gets charged with a crime. The police are responsible for investigating crimes, gathering evidence and sometimes also testifying in court. But prosecutors – including district attorneys, United States attorneys, states attorneys and others – ultimately decide whether a suspect is prosecuted or not. Pennsylvania has a large network of district attorneys that prosecute state criminal laws in the state.

Contact a Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorney

Anyone facing criminal charges in Pennsylvania has the right to mount a vigorous defense. An attorney familiar with local criminal procedures and laws can be a crucial advocate.

Make sure you talk with an attorney about your case and your needs before hiring one. Most criminal defense lawyers should be able to handle any misdemeanor or low-level crime. Not all attorneys are qualified to handle serious charges.

A Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney could mean the difference between going to jail and going free.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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